Just 13 miles from the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center in Ventura, Anacapa Island is the second smallest of the Channel Islands at roughly five miles long and one-half mile wide. The native Chumash once called this island “Ennepah,” a word meaning deception or mirage which alluded to this island’s changing shape when viewed at different times from the mainland and other islands. Anacapa is actually a narrow chain of three islands appropriately called East, Middle, and West Anacapa. Emerging from the fog of the Santa Barbara Channel, Anacapa Island drifts in and out of sight, beckoning visitors from the mainland as it has for centuries.
Chumash on Anacapa
Archeological evidence suggests that the native Chumash people were visiting Anacapa Island as long as 5,000 years ago. Abalone and mussel shells, bones from fish, birds, and pinnipeds, and human artifacts such as bone tools, shell beads, projectile points, and fish hooks all suggest extensive human activity on the island. Due to the absence of fresh water on the island, it is likely that seasonal camps were used for fishing and other activities.
Despite the lack of archeological evidence of permanent settlements on the island, Chumash legend holds that the American Indian population of the Channel Islands began on Anacapa. In the early 20th century, anthropologist John Harrington extensively interviewed a Mission San Buenaventura Chumash man named Fernando Librado who told Harrington a story passed on orally through generations of Chumash Indians. According to the story, eight families traveled to Anacapa Island after a civil war on the mainland and settled on the north side of the middle island. For water, they dug a hole and used seepage at Indian Cave on West Anacapa. After a time, the eight families left Anacapa for Santa Cruz Island, eventually spreading to all the northern islands.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European explorer to make contact with the Channel Islands in 1542. Although he passed Anacapa, he and his crew never settled there. Cabrillo named the northern Islands Las Islas de San Lucas, which included Anacapa.
Learning that there were no American Indians on the island, few European explorers visited Anacapa the following decades. Its small size and relative unimportance left the island largely unrecorded for a period of 250 years. The 1793 expedition by Englishman George Vancouver standardized the names of the Channel Islands. Vancouver recorded Anacapa as “Enecapa” and the present spelling appeared on maps in 1854.
Like many of the other Channel Islands, Anacapa Island was used for sheep ranching during the latter half of the 19th century. It is uncertain exactly when ranching began on Anacapa. It is believed that three men owned ranches prior to the first recorded lease which began in 1902. H. Bay Webster, himself a sheep rancher on the island, recalled that the first sheep ranch had been established by George Nidever before 1885, although he may have been confused with events on
Ranchers used Middle Anacapa for the main headquarters of their sheep operations and the livestock were landed on the northwest side of the island. Sheep survived year-round, but on a marginal basis. With no dependable supply of fresh water, many recalled the somewhat dubious story that the sheep would lick the moisture from the morning fog off of each other’s coats. To improve grazing, sheep ranchers introduced exotic grasses to the island. By the 1930s the sheep had destroyed most of the native plants and had begun to eat the endemic Astragalus miguelensis. As a result, many of the sheep died, bringing an end to sheep herding on Anacapa.